Midwest by moonlight: low pay means two jobs

In fictional Lake Wobegon, the small Minnesota town popularized by radio personality Garrison Keillor, "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."

In the real-life burgs Lake Wobegon is modeled after, Mr. Keillor could add another trait: "Where more adults work two jobs than anywhere else."

Minnesota and North Dakota lead the US in the number of households where at least one adult moonlights either to pay the bills, or more recently, to maximize income in the high-tech job market.

On one hand, this and other statistics suggest that the economy has not brought prosperity to all regions of America. Yet, in a different sense, it's also Wobegonian proof that the famous Midwestern work ethic is still alive and well, among both the haves and have-nots of the New Economy.

"Generally, we attribute the proliferation of those working second jobs to the good economy and lots of employment opportunities," says Jay Mousa, director of research at the Minnesota Department of Economic Security. "But you cannot avoid asserting the old-fashioned, Midwestern job ethic into the equation."

In this region brimming with the descendants of industrious Scandinavian immigrants, roughly 1 in 10 workers punches the clock again after leaving day jobs. That's far above the national average of about 1 in every 16 workers.

Part of those numbers are owed to small farmers and ranchers in the heartland taking jobs to pay the bills of running livestock and tending their fields.

But the multiple-job phenomenon goes deeper than that, and it transcends traditional agrarians, says Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Data Center at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Earlier this year, the Data Center completed an analysis of the upper Midwest labor force using recent statistics provided by the US Department of Labor.

The conclusion: Age, income, and place of residence all play distinct and important roles.

"The reasons people moonlight are complex," Mr. Rathge says.

For example, the study found that senior citizens are the age group most likely to hold more than one job, a fact attributed to retirees needing to supplement Social Security checks.

Overall, though, the group with the highest number of second-job holders was people in the lower and middle areas of the job market. And the farther away these people were from thriving centers of commerce like Minneapolis-St. Paul, the more likely they were to hold two jobs.

"The average wages per job tend to always be higher in the metro centers, and the more rural you get, the lower the average wages you find," Rathge says. "In rural areas, holding down a second job, for many, is often a matter of survival."

The urban-rural split

In the farming and manufacturing town of Mora, Minn., Cam Robbins, a widowed mother of four, toils in a state job during the day and works as a bookkeeper for a trucking company at night and on weekends.

"A year ago, I took a second job because, with four kids to care for, I wasn't earning enough to get by," Ms. Robbins says. "If we were making city wages, many of us would be able to just have one job."

It's a common refrain across the plains of the upper Midwest.

"In our community, if a person isn't working two jobs, then their wife or husband might be working two jobs," says Phil Peterson, director of the state office of Family Services in Kanabec County. "At the very least, both are holding down a job. Wages are such that you just can't get by on a single salary."

In Mora, as in many rural towns throughout the region, service-job salaries pay between $6 and $8 an hour. But it takes a minimum of $12 an hour to afford a house and keep a family fed and clothed, Mr. Peterson says.

He notes that this situation is especially problematic for the growing number of single-parent households. Families are spending less time together; they are forced to drive old, unreliable cars; they pay a disproportionate percentage of income in rent. And when the costs of food, utilities, health insurance, and day care are added in, it's nearly impossible for them to get ahead financially.

Other, more subtle effects are also changing the social fabric of rural communities. With more people working second jobs, there's less time for volunteerism at places like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools.

And this is all during a time of unprecedented national prosperity. Peterson worries what might happen if the economy takes a downturn.

High-tech workers

Of course, not all of the moonlighting can be blamed on low wages. Economists note that some middle-class professionals are overextended financially and take on a second job to chip away at credit-card debt. Others see an opportunity to amass a sizable nest egg.

Indeed, Mr. Mousa links the second-job phenomenon in the Twin Cities to a shortage of high-tech workers. People are realizing that they can shop their skills around and make more money than they ever imagined.

Mousa says he knows of several state computer workers and university professors who hire themselves out at night, not only to bolster their savings, but also to give them the cash to buy a second minivan, take an exotic vacation, or purchase a lakeside cabin.

Minnesota, Mousa says, has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation, the highest rate of people seeking jobs, and the highest rate of women involved in the job market.

"Whether it's cultural or social I don't know," he says, "but it's a hard-working state."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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